Women’s Kabbalat Shabbat draws crowds in Hadley Wood
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Thursday 6th April 2017

As the Liaison Officer for the United Synagogue Women organisation in my shul, Hadley Wood Jewish Community, until late last year, I often listened to some of the female-focussed activities under way within other communities and considered it unlikely that, in our small-but-perfectly-formed community, we would ever have a sufficient critical mass of like-minded women to be able to see similar endeavours brought to life.

It turns out I was wrong. Earlier this year, I was delighted to accept an invitation from our talented Rebbetzen, Elisheva Birnbaum, to the setting up of a women’s-only singing Friday Night service for HWJC, to take place once every two months.

At the first service, it became apparent that many attendees (in common with female members of many Anglo-Jewish communities) had relatively limited experience of attending the Kabbalat Shabbat service. Encouraged by the non-threatening, inclusive environment that Elisheva and her expert leaders created, the group embraced the opportunity to soak up the beautiful tunes and ideas of this most musical and lively of our services as a wonderful transition from our working weeks into the beauty of Shabbat, describing the experience as “magical” and “moving”.

It’s early days for our services, but it’s already apparent that exposure to the material is breeding increased familiarity, as well as stimulating broader discussion about the positive direction in which the United Synagogue overall is moving to enrich women's participation in services within the bounds of Halacha.

Debra, a HWJC member, told me that she “thoroughly enjoys the Women’s Friday Night get-together – not only for social reasons but also because it is a lovely way to start the weekend by singing and leaving with a smile on my face.” Keely, also a member, described the event as “a wonderful idea – a beautiful way for us to bring in Shabbat together”.

As someone who has acquired my Jewish learning in adulthood, I have a personal interest in finding ways, as a woman, to meet the challenge of Jewish spiritual expression, and, through deeper understanding, become a full participant in prayer. For me, a transliterated Siddur has been instrumental in fostering my familiarity with the building blocks of the service, and we’re using that tool in our services as well, to ensure that rusty Hebrew reading need not be an impediment to participation.

Blessed as we are with a four-year-old daughter, my husband and I have also already started our conversations of thinking about how, when (please G-d) the time comes, we can properly demarcate the bat mitzvah rite of passage in an equitable way to the bar mitzvah. I am more than hopeful that early participation in our burgeoning Friday nights at HWJC will prepare the ground for Eva to lead one of those services in due course – although hopefully not before I have mastered doing so myself!

All of that said, it’s probably not that surprising that a self-proclaimed feminist, full-time working mother and US Women advocate is a willing participant at a women’s prayer endeavour. To my mind, even more important is the fact that Elisheva’s services are drawing in women of all ages, with varying degrees of observance and knowledge, many of whom have never regularly attended Friday night services. Through her innovative, thoughtful and sensitive approach, she is opening up tefillah in exciting new ways and creating new opportunities for spiritual expression for many women within our community.

Katie Jacques attended the most recent service with her daughter. “I was filled with amazement and pride to observe my little girl participate in the service and demonstrate that she knew way more than me! I found the whole thing touching and beautiful. I got to observe first-hand how enriched Mimi has become by the efforts of her Cheder teachers and Elisheva, and am truly grateful.”

Hadley Wood Jewish Community is a diverse and energetic community north-east of Barnet and north of Cockfosters (within the M25). To find out more, please visit www.thehwjc.com or email marketing@hadleywoodjewishcommunity.co.uk

Catherine Lenson, HWJC, March 2017